Mandatory detention conditions fuel the fire

Originally posted on 

Christmas Island, Curtin, Northern Immigration Detention Centre in Darwin, Maribyrnong, Perth, Phosphate Hill, Scherger and Villawood Detention Centre…

These are the welcoming arms of Australia for the few desperate individuals who make it into Australian waters seeking asylum. They are detention centres that could become “home” for indefinite periods of months or even years.

In the early hours of the morning Villawood Detention Centre was set alight, and protestors climbed up onto the roof of the centre.

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen says some of the protestors had had their refugee applications denied and were appealing the decisions. He cites their disappointment as the impetus for the protests. No doubt facing rejection after months of incarceration would be a bitter pill to swallow, but the unrest that has characterised Australia’s detention centres for decades seems to be deeper than the disappointment of a few individuals.

“You don’t do these things for no reason,” Ian Rintoul of the Refugee Action Coalition says. He lists indefinite detention and a lack of transparency and fairness when their applications are considered as the long-term reasons for the turbulence and instability that has long been a feature of detention centres – most famously at Woomera.

The ‘bigger question’, he suggests, is not why did the detainees protest but rather “why are we treating people who have committed no crime as if they are the worst criminals in the world?”.

Fair question. The worst criminals in the world, as Rintoul puts it (at least in democratic countries like our own) are not sent to prison before they go to trial, nor are they sentenced to an indefinite term behind bars with no indication of when they may be released. In fact, we are the only developed country who sees fit to indiscriminately and indefinitely detain asylum seekers in flagrant breach of international law.

The photos featured on present a frightening scene. As dramatic as the images of police and flames licking at wire fences are; I’m sure it was a whole lot more terrifying for those inside or on the roof fighting for answers.

Scott Morrison sees it differently, urging for the detainees to be punished and condemning the government for allowing a repeat by not cracking down hard enough after the Christmas Island riots. In effect, Morrison is arguing that the detainees should be punished by delaying their applications even further – the very reason the young men involved in the protest felt desperate enough to climb up on roof tops and set buildings on fire.

It’s a characteristically simplistic and predictably heartless response.

Scott Morrison feeds the fear that radio shock jocks like Chris Smith (2GB) have been running with ever since the Christmas Island protests, saying that the same people may have coordinated both protests.

Rintoul, who I suspect has had far more real-life contact with the inhabitants of Villawood than Mr Morrison, emphasised that that was not possible. The fires were located in the Stage Three compounds, whereas the only people who have been transferred from Christmas Island are being held in Stage One. Further, Rintoul says that they were moved from Christmas Island before the protests even occurred, seven or eight months ago.

In response to the close timing between the protests on Christmas Island and last night’s fires at Villawood Rintoul does not seem surprised. He likened the current situation to that during the Howard era.

“Protests are contagious. They were then, and they are now.”

Just as protests spread between Baxter, Portheadland and Woomera, we are seeing the same desperation spread from Christmas Island to Villawood.

If “the conditions create tinder for protests”, is it any wonder that Villawood was set alight?

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